Caps, Canadiens set to play on big stage
To see how far the Capitals franchise has come in its last 35 years, look no further than the club’s former futility against this year’s playoff opponent, Montreal.
While the expansion Caps were terrible during the 1970s, their early years came during the Canadiens’ strong run of the 1970s, where Montreal claimed four Stanley Cups during Washington’s first five seasons in the league.
As a result of the disparity, the Habs won the first 23 meetings between the two clubs, and despite coming into the NHL in 1974 the Capitals did not record a single win against Montreal until 1979 — after 34 tries (0-31-3). Likewise, the early edition of the Capitals took 23 trips to the old Montreal Forum before it recorded their first win in 1983, an 0-22-1 stretch.
Now, after the Capitals’ top regular season in franchise history, the team looks to make a run for its own Stanley Cup title — with Washington clinching its division faster than any other team since the 1977-78 version of those Canadiens — starting off with the electric atmosphere at Bell Centre that few arenas can match.
As Alexander Ovechkin told reporters before Washington’s first visit to Montreal last November: “In this building, with this crowd, it’s an amazing building to play hockey. You don’t have to drink Red Bull to play here.”
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One player in the spotlight in his former goal crease will be Caps netminder Jose Theodore, a Quebec native who spent over a decade with the Canadiens, and crowds certainly look to get under the former Montreal keeper with derisive chants of “Tay-O,” as they did during the netminder’s relief appearance in an overtime loss in February.
“We like the song,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau joked Wednesday. “They can sing it all they want because they’re always in unison. … I don’t think it should affect him. He should be excited to play there.”
Of course, one thing the intense pressure does will help provide a bit of an equalizer for the Capitals, because as much as the expectations are high on the Presidents’ Trophy winners, so too are the hopes of the Canadiens faithful to try and end a franchise-record 17 years without a Stanley Cup.
And, in a city used to regular Stanley Cup parades with the most in NHL history as well as the Expos’ departure to Washington after the 2004 season, Boudreau feels the pressure is also on the eighth-seeded Habs.
“That’s the only game in town,” Boudreau told reporters this week. “They don’t have to split it up and have the Nationals on half the page and the Wizards on some of the pages, the Redskins and us. It’s Montreal. It’s the Canadiens. … All the TV stations will lead with the stories about the Canadiens, so there is a lot of pressure.”
Carrying both English and French-language press on road trips with them — along with being one of just three Canadian teams in the postseason — certainly boosts the profile of what normally would be a quiet eighth-seeded squad.
According to Nate Ewell, the Capitals’ Senior Director of Media Relations, the number of credential requests for this first-round series have eclipsed last year’s Capitals-Penguins conference semifinal series — mostly thanks to the influx of reporters from the Montreal market.
“Everybody in [Montreal] knows who every player is,” Boudreau said. “It’s not just like in this city, where you know where Alex and Mike and Nicky are and maybe guys like John Carlson can walk around unknown — they know every single [Canadien] from Mathieu Darche to Brian Gionta.”
Of course, the Canadiens are also using the pressure card, by virtue of the Capitals’ regular-season.